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History of Voting in the United States
Voting in United States of America is a constitutional right for its citizens. However, this right was not always absolute. When colonies in North America were still under the governing rule of the British, the King of England appointed government officials. Following the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, congress established the U.S. Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation and created the foundation of the electoral and political system of the United States. In this first delineation, the Constitution established three branches of government and the election of those members through voting.
In 1789, only 6 percent of the population elected the first president and vice president of the United States. Each of the 69 electors from the ten states used one of their two votes for George Washington – making him the clear choice for president – and their second vote on one of the other nine candidates. With the second-most votes after Washington, John Adams ascended to the office of vice president of the U.S.
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The First Voters
The Founding Fathers kept the same voter qualifications from their English predecessors. Like elected officials, the first voters were white, male and property owners older than 21 years of age. The 1790 Naturalization Law plainly stated only a “free white person” could be granted U.S. citizenship, effectively making voting possible for only said citizens.
Additionally, each of the 13 states that ratified the Constitution had unique voter credentials that specified acres of land owned, worth of livestock or religion. Many Protestant-dominant areas would deny voting to Catholics and Jews. Though many states over the subsequent decades would eliminate these property requirements, the 14th Amendment in 1868 gave all white male citizens older than 21 years of age the ability to vote.
Extending the Right to Vote
Two years later in 1870, the 15th Amendment gave African-American men the right to vote. This amendment to the Constitution detailed that there would be no denial of voting rights based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However, a Supreme Court ruling in 1876 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 denied the citizenship and the right to vote to the indigenous Native Americans and individuals of Chinese ancestry.
In 1920, the 19th Amendment extended the voting liberty to female citizens of all races. Though legally applicable, racial and gender discrimination still prevented citizens from voting. Rampant acts of violence towards minorities deterred potential voters for decades. Many southern states enacted literacy tests, language requirements and poll taxes to disenfranchise minorities as well as the poor. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed these discriminatory voting practices and reinforced the voting rights of previous amendments.
Engaged in the Vietnam War, the 26th Amendment in 1971 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, to appease the outrage of young soldiers who could fight but not vote. The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act passed in 1984 to promote ease of use at polling locations for those with disabilities. This act added access ramps, large type instructions and other voting aids.
With the expansion of U.S. citizens and military abroad, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act was enacted in 1986. Members of the armed forces, as well as citizens outside of their voter jurisdiction, are able to vote with mail-in ballots. Absentee and early voting are also available for continental citizens who are unable to vote at polling locations on Election Day.
In 1993, the National Voter Registration Act made voter registration easier. Also known as the Motor Voter Act, citizens could register through driver’s license procurement or renewal, as well as through public assistance programs and disability and social services. The Help America Vote Act in 2002 made reforms to improve the voting system in addition to voters’ access. Such implementations include statewide voter registration databases, provisional voting and voter information.